It’s been hitting other media sites as well, but I first caught the news of Snowball the dancing parrot at The Atlantic:
His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana—along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played “Everybody,” Snowball “immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,” she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity.
What’s unusual about Snowball is his choreographic development:
Snowball wasn’t copying Schulz. When she danced with him, she’d only ever sway or wave her arms. He, meanwhile, kept innovating. In 2008, Patel’s undergraduate student R. Joanne Jao Keehn filmed these moves, while Snowball danced to “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” And recently, after a long delay caused by various life events, she combed through the muted footage and cataloged 14 individual moves (plus two combinations). Snowball strikes poses. He body rolls, and swings his head through half circles, and headbangs with a raised foot. To the extent that a parrot can, he vogues.
The article explains more about how his rhythmic ability was noticed and tested, but I will say this: he’s quite the talented bird, I definitely cannot lift my leg like that and still keep headbanging.
What’s interesting is the conclusions being drawn from Snowball’s dancing ability:
“Parrots are more closely related to dinosaurs than to us,” Patel says, and yet they are the only other animals known to show both spontaneous and diverse dancing to music. “This suggests to me that dancing in human cultures isn’t a purely arbitrary invention,” Patel says. Instead, he suggests that it arises when animals have a particular quintet of mental skills and predilections:
- They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
- They must be able to imitate movements.
- They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
- They must be attentive to the movements of others.
- They must form long-term social bonds.
A brain that checks off all five traits is “the kind of brain that has the impulse to move to music,” Patel says. “In our own evolution, when these five things came together, we were primed to become dancers.” If he’s right, that settles the eternal question posed by The Killers. Are we human, or are we dancer? We’re both.
Parrots also tick off all five traits, as do elephants and dolphins. But outside of trained performances, “do you ever see a dolphin do anything to music spontaneously, creatively, and diversely?” Patel asks. “I don’t know if it’s been studied.” He wonders whether animals need not only five traits that create an impulse to dance, but also a lot of exposure to humans and our music. Captive dolphins don’t get much musical experience, and even though they interact with trainers, their main social bonds are still with other dolphins. But Snowball, from an early age, lived with humans. He seemingly dances for attention, rather than for food or other rewards. And he appears to dance more continuously when Schulz dances with him—something that Patel will formally analyze in a future study.
I say, keep dancing, Snowball! And here’s two dancing songs for the rest of us: